Like other fascist states, Nazi Germany was obsessed about upholding law and order. Nazi law and order was predicated on the idea that all individuals should be subordinate to the state, law-abiding and obedient. Everyone was to be aware of their place and was not to deviate from it. The process of crafting this fascist society was called Gleichschaltung, which translates as ‘moulding into shape’ or ‘forced co-ordination’. While many Nazi policies were part of Gleichschaltung, law and order policies were particularly important. Hitler was well aware most Germans had not voted for him or the NSDAP before 1933. He wanted strict laws to prohibit political opposition, to deal with dissidents and ‘underground’ resistance. Hitler also wanted to reduce crime and eliminate what he viewed as ‘anti-social behaviours’, including alcoholism, begging, promiscuity, prostitution and homosexuality. He also supported radical measures since adopted by modern governments, such as gun control and bans on smoking in public places.
Nazi Germany became a true police state, with a significant number of law enforcement and investigative agencies, each with wide-ranging powers. Some of these organisations, like the Gestapo, were notorious for using intimidation, torture and extra-legal killing. Others, like the Sicherheitsdienst, are not as well known but were no less fearsome. As with Nazi government departments, the different responsibilities and jurisdictions of Nazi police agencies were not well defined. There was considerable overlap between police organisations, meaning they often co-operated with, and sometimes even competed against each other. The main Nazi police agencies were:
Gestapo. Formed by Hermann Goering in April 1933, the early Gestapo was recruited from the Prussian police service. A year later it was absorbed into the SS and placed under the command of Heinrich Himmler. When Himmer was made chief of all German police in 1936, the Gestapo became a national agency. Its function was to investigate and remove major threats to the state, including treason, espionage and assassination plots against Nazi leaders. The Gestapo was given wide-ranging powers and could operate ‘outside’ the courts: it could search without warrant, interrogate without restraint and detain without trial. Initially the Gestapo was quite small, with barely 5,000 agents before 1939. During the war it increased to more than 45,000 agents.
George Browder, historian
Kripo (short for Kriminalpolizei, or ‘criminal police’). The Kripo were plain-clothed detectives who investigated serious criminal offences, like murder, manslaughter, sexual assault, arson, fraud and major theft. The Kripo was not formed by the Nazis – it had existed under the Weimar government – nor did it deal with ‘political crimes’. The Nazis absorbed the Kripo into the SS in 1933 and infiltrated it to some extent. Kripo detectives with anti-Nazi views were pressured into resignation or retirement, while many loyal Nazis were drafted into the Kripo. Unlike the Gestapo, the Kripo and its actions could be reviewed by the courts, so Kripo agents tended to use more conventional policing methods.
SiPo (short for Sicherhietspolizei, or ‘security police’). This was an umbrella term used to describe the state’s two highest investigative police services: the Gestapo and the Kripo. Both agencies were merged into the SiPo in 1936, though they continued to operate separately. Himmler was appointed commander in chief of the SiPo, which gave him control of both political and criminal police forces.
SD (Sicherheitsdienst, or ‘Security Service). The SD was a uniformed division of the SS, responsible for gathering intelligence for the SS and the NSDAP at large. Formed in 1931, it was later commanded by Reinhard Heydrich, one of the SS’s most ruthless and efficient officers. The main function of the SD was to identify and deal with opponents of the regime, so it often worked closely with the Gestapo. After 1940 the SD was influential in Nazi-occupied Europe, charged with maintaining security in Jewish camps and ghettos, labour camps and military installations. SD agents infiltrated Jewish populations, uncovering escape plots, investigating blackmarket rings and locating other agents or hidden persons. It was the SD in Amsterdam, for instance, which raided the hiding place of teenage diarist Anne Frank and her family.
Orpo (short for Ordnungspolizei, or ‘ordinary police). The Orpo was the uniformed police force of Nazi Germany. Prior to 1936, uniformed police had been managed by state and local governments. Control passed to the SS, after Himmler took control of all German police later that year. Himmler expanded and reorganised the Orpo, to deal with a wider range of policing and emergency response issues. Orpo battalions were deployed to manage traffic, water safety and public transport; to provide fire safety and response; to organise air raid precautions, guard infrastructure and communications facilities, even serve as nightwatchmen for important factories. Some Orpo battalions were also trained to act as a home guard or reservist military force.
While Germany’s police forces were significantly reorganised by the Nazis, most of the nation’s civil and criminal courts were not. Before 1933 the Nazis had talked tough about German courts, accusing them of being too liberal and too soft on crime, with conventions that favoured criminals rather than their victims. The NSDAP’s 25-point plan even talked of scrapping the entire court system and replacing them with new National Socialist courts. Perhaps because of this, Germany’s judges, lawyers and legal experts caved in to many Nazi demands and expectations. The Nazis did not have to change the court system; the system simply changed for them.
Judges were at the heart of this transformation. They interpreted and enforced Nazi legislation, even their dubious racial and eugenics policies, without question for the most part. Judges did not question or criticise the Gestapo, which acted beyond the reach of the courts. They caved in to Nazi demands for tougher sentences for certain crimes. In one example, a Nazi editorial raging against petty crime prompted a Cologne judge to sentence a middle-aged woman to death – her crime was to steal some curtains, clothes and three tins of coffee. There were occasional flashes of judicial independence – such as the 1937 release of an ageing grandmother who had called Hitler an “arschficker” (sodomite) – but this was rare.
Two new ‘Nazi courts’ were set up to deal with political crimes: the Sondergerichte (the ‘Special Court’, established in 1933) and the Volksgerichtshof (the ‘People’s Court’, 1934). The Volksgerichtshof was ordered by an infuriated Hitler following the acquittal of the Reichstag fire accused by mainstream courts (the Nazi leader was expecting judges to find evidence of a communist conspiracy). Both courts were formed under the auspices of the Enabling Act, so they operated outside existing court systems and legal jurisdictions. Both dealt with so-called ‘political crimes’, which were deemed by Nazi judges to be Wehrkraftzersetzung (‘incapable of a defence’). ‘Political crimes’ ranged from minor offences – like trading on the blackmarket, criticising Hitler or the government, or protesting about work conditions – through to treason, espionage and sabotage. The Nazi courts did not employ standard legal procedures or principles, like the presumption of innocence, trial by peers or the right to cross-examine witnesses. In some Volksgerichtshof trials, one man alone acted as judge, jury and court recorder.
The conduct of the Nazi courts worsened after the outbreak of World War II. From 1942 the Volksgerichtshof was headed by Roland Freisler, a legal theorist who was utterly loyal to Nazism. Freisler was notorious for insulting and abusing defendants during trials, a practice that earned him the nickname ‘Raving Roland’. Under Freisler’s management the Volksgerichtshof sent more than 5,000 Germans to their death without a fair trial. Some Volksgerichtshof hearings moved at an astonishing pace. An example of this was the treatment of the ‘White Rose’ movement. On the morning of February 22nd 1943 a group of students were arrested for distributing anti-war leaflets at the University of Munich. Three of them, including 21-year-old Sophie Scholl, were tried and found guilty in less than an hour; they were guillotined just six hours after their arrest. Freisler also instigated reforms which allowed the Volksgerichtshof to detain and execute children. In 1942 16-year-old Helmuth Hubener was arrested in Hamburg, also for distributing anti-war pamphlets. The Volksgerichtshof found Hubener guilty of treason and he was also beheaded.
1. Nazi totalitarianism was achieved through a systematic takeover of German police and legal institutions.
2. The Gestapo was the most notorious of these, a secret police agency formed from Prussian security police units.
3. The SD was the intelligence-gathering arm of the SS, and also operated with considerable extra-legal powers.
4. Other civilian police agencies and courts were ‘Nazified’ or coerced into embracing Nazi legal reforms.
5. The Nazis also set up their own courts, such as the notorious People’s Court, led by chief judge Roland Freisler.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Nazi law and order”, Alpha History, accessed [today's date], http://alphahistory.com/nazigermany/nazi-law-and-order/.